Another international break has come and gone, and after a—shall we say—eventful ten days of American politics and American international football, US-based Everton supporters such as myself can find a bit of a silver lining in that the Toffees’ 5-0 defeat to Chelsea is no longer fresh on the memory. This particular layoff can be filed in the category of “came at a good time” for Everton, and perhaps the same can be said for Swansea City.
Since defeating Burnley on opening day, the Swans have lost 8 and drawn 2. After firing Francesco Guidolin and hiring Bob Bradley, they’ve managed a singular point from 4 matches, and limped into the break on the back of a particularly disheartening thrashing at the hands of Manchester United.
Two years ago, Swansea finished 8th but underlying numbers led certain statsy folk to wonder if they had gotten lucky and were due for a regression. By March of last year they were a complete mess, and ended up solidifying their place as a lower mid-table team. Gone are the days, it seems, of optimistic and free-flowing attacking football at the Liberty Stadium, but surely their roster on paper indicates a team better than 19th place?
Looking at their numbers this year, a few things stick out. Here are some illuminating visuals courtesy of @analytic_footy:
Offensively, Swansea are creating pretty high quality chances, but their volume is subpar. There’s also evidence they’ve been a bit unlucky in front of goal. While their output overall hasn’t been great, it’s safe to say that based on attack alone they do not deserve to be in the relegation zone.
On the other side of things, though, the picture is much worse. They’re conceding an above average volume of shots but more damning is that they have the highest chance quality against in the league. You might look at their dismal save percentage (19th in the league) and think it will regress to the mean over time, but unless they stop conceding such good chances so often, the goals will probably keep flying in.
The defense should be Bob Bradley’s first priority, and in that sense he’s not a bad hire. His career has shown him to be a highly pragmatic manager who tends to adapt his style to the players available and the situation presented to him. Fans of the US national team will likely remember him not so much as an exciting but a solid manager who rarely sacrificed structure an organization in favor of attacking flair.
With that being said, early results give some mixed messages. His first match against Arsenal was totally helter skelter and wide open, while a few weeks later against Man United he attempted a very restricted approach and was summarily beaten. In truth it’s likely a bit early to judge Bradley as a Premier League manager, but it is fair to highlight some areas in which Swansea need significant improvement.
Unlike most of the teams around them at the foot of the table, Swansea are blessed with a few mid-to-upper echelon talents. Gylfi Sigurðsson is up there with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Christian Eriksen in terms of expected goals and assists, and he has shown in recent weeks that he continues to be a threat on set pieces:
Meanwhile, Modou Barrow is coming into his own as a quality winger with considerable dribbling skill and a keen eye for his teammates. Paul Riley’s model has him at fourth in the league in expected assists, and he is often Swansea’s main attacking outlet. Here he is against Watford a few weeks ago:
Up front Bradley has options in Fernando Llorente, who is aging but has quite a pedigree, and Borja Bastón, who is much younger and has had decent numbers in the past. Much of Swansea’s attack revolves around using Bastón or Llorente as target man, dropping deep and holding up the ball to bring Barrow or the overlapping fullback Kyle Naughton into play. As such they can be somewhat lopsided in attack:
When Barrow is on his game though, their lopsided-ness isn’t always a negative thing, especially when Sigurðsson can use his intelligent movement to draw defenders out of position and create more space for Barrow and Naughton.
While Swansea’s attack isn’t necessarily bad, it is often hamstrung by a certain lack of pace and urgency. Barrow’s direct style helps with this, but Swansea are near the bottom of the league in shots per minute and shots per completion, and they are caught offsides more rarely than any other team. This seems to suggest a slow and patient approach. Again, this isn’t a problem on its own, but if it fails to get going Swansea can look like this, with plenty of circulation in areas that aren’t dangerous:
As noted above, it is on the defensive side of things where Swansea are showing themselves to be relegation-caliber. The shot quality against is particularly concerning, especially given Bradley’s reputation for imposing organization and solidity. Looking at the numbers in conjunction with film show a team that is quite soft in the middle of the pitch, and has serious positional issues, especially in transition. Take a look at some of the chances and goals they have conceded in their last three matches:
There are a couple of reoccurring themes:
- The ease with which opponents can run at them and find space in the middle of the pitch. The Swansea back line is often straight and organized, but without any protection in front of them. Notice in the two chances against Watford how much space there is directly in front of the box. In the second Stoke clip, Joe Allen easily runs straight into the box without attracting much attention. Finally, watch how much space Zlatan Ibrahimović has at the edge of the box for his goal. He just camps out there and nobody seems to care. It’s insane—this is one of the most feared marksmen of our generation and he is standing still in acres of space some 20-25 yards from goal.
- Poor positioning in transition. Angel Rangel on Stoke’s first goal is the most egregious example shown but at the moment the Swans don’t look they are working hard enough in transition to track runners and close down space. It all looks way too easy for their opponents.
Vital Swansea put together a brutal and in depth takedown of their performance against Manchester United that should have Everton supporters licking their lips ahead of this weekend. It highlights some things mentioned above, as well as a few others. In short, Swans appear to be in disarray at the moment, tentative in both attack and defense.
After such a horrible loss, Everton couldn’t ask for a much better matchup than being at home against such a disheveled side. With that being said, Swansea do have enough quality up front to score goals against Everton if the Toffees are not wary of the likes of Sigurðsson and Barrow.
Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Bolasie, and Ross Barkley should look to use their physicality to dominate Swansea defensive midfield and back line. Bradley may look to play ultra-defensive, but the evidence thus far does suggest that a patient and confident Everton will be able to create chances.